Lights, Camera, Acrimony: Baseball's First Televised Game Changed Everything

On this date in 1939, Major League Baseball made its TV debut. And nothing's been the same since

A television camera focuses on catcher Dioner Navarro
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
A television camera focuses on catcher Dioner Navarro of the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 14th, 2011 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.
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Instant replay. Night games. The designated hitter.

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Sounds like a baseball purist's list of grievances. Over the past century, America's pastime has proven that it's willing to change (sometimes at a faster pace than the country itself), but why? Well, an obvious answer is to make the game better. A more specific answer is to make it more watchable.

The real answer? Television.

Almost every decision the game makes concerns its impact – positive or negative – on TV ratings. So, no matter how loudly the dude in the St. Louis Browns short-billed cap complains about the game today, turns out, the most important change has nothing to do with the rules, and everything to do with television.

And on this day in 1939, the first Major League Baseball game – between the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers – was televised. Or, more specifically, games, since the teams played a doubleheader at Ebbets Field that day, one broadcast on station W2XBS (which would eventually become WNBC) and called by radio man Red Barber.

Less than a decade later, thanks to the spread of the television set, MLB attendance would reach a high of 21 million. But beyond ticket sales, the new technology helped raise the sport's profile: TV literally did for baseball what eyeglasses did for reading, bringing the game to people without having to watch it up close at the park.

People liked it so much that now every major league team has a regional TV deal and the league has national contracts with multiple networks. And, boy, has that changed the game. All 30 major league teams were scheduled to play on TV today. There's such a demand that a team like the Yankees even has its own network.

The billions the league generates in TV rights alone turned players into multimillionaires and owners into billionaires. And that's a trend both parties hope to continue.

Executives in the league office are constantly concerned with improving the televised product. It quite possibly might be baseball's biggest overarching initiative. Some of those earlier tweaks to the game? Well, more night games were added because that's when most people aren't working and able to watch TV. The DH? More offense, which brings in more viewers. When the popularity of the All-Star Game began to wane, it was decreed that the winning league would get home-field advantage in the World Series. And when instant replay was initially considered, the major league office considered that it could lengthen games and, subsequently, hurt viewership. The speed-of-play argument is shaping up to be a catalyst for even more change in the future.

No change is made to the game without first considering television. And if purists are mad now, just wait until we've got iUmps and Snapchat strike zones. It's only a matter of time.